(The Root) — Hypocrisy abounds when it comes to differing views of Attorney General Eric Holder.
Liberals didn't seem to mind when Holder declined to prosecute New Black Panther Party members on charges that they'd menaced voters at a Philadelphia polling place in 2008 — even though they'd surely have complained if the Justice Department had looked the other way while Tea Partiers dressed in tricorne hats had tried to do the same thing.
Conservatives, meanwhile, recently joined the chorus of civil libertarians outraged over Holder's aggressive pursuit of reporters in leak investigations — even though they'd have howled louder if they thought the Justice Department was leaving any stone unturned in its effort to ferret out national-security leaks in President Barack Obama's administration.
When it comes to Holder, it seems, the definition of justice is in the eye of the beholder.
But with tandem controversies still festering over Holder's top deputy casting too wide a net of subpoenas over the Associated Press's phone records — and then Holder himself signing off on an affidavit that aggressively characterized a Fox News reporter as an "aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator" in a suspected State Department leak investigation — I'd have to agree with The Root colleague Keli Goff's assessment that the media's increasing distrust of Holder bodes ill for President Barack Obama's administration.
For instance, last week, as reported by Richard Prince in his Journal-isms column, three major organizations representing journalists of color have declined an invite to discuss the leak controversy with Holder, citing concerns that the First Amendment implications involved are too serious for an off-the-record discussion.
And while some of the blame goes to the president's GOP opponents — who never miss a chance to attack "whoever Barack Obama puts in there" — this time it isn't all their fault.
Holder's lack of dexterity when it comes to the politics of being a political appointee frequently seems to do his boss more harm than good. And the answer to the question of whether he's an asset or a liability in the administration — asked with more frequency these days — turns on what Obama, the media, the public and Holder himself see as his role.
Consider the history:
Back in Obama's first month in office, Holder immediately swerved out of his lane while giving a Black History Month speech, remarking that "in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards." He had a valid point, but one that wasn't the brand-new attorney general's job to state — especially since it stepped all over the conciliatory racial frame that his boss was trying to set.
Last year, Fortune's Katherine Eban debunked overblown conspiracy accusations in the "Fast and Furious" case. But that didn't put the brakes on the controversy in time to save Holder and his top deputies from having to express their "regret" and formally withdraw a 2011 letter to Congress that contained inaccurate details about their investigation.
Earlier this year, it looked as if Holder relished his televised joust with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) over the government's power to use armed drones. But after he penned a fairly nuanced letter (pdf) to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), challenging the view that there was essentially no conceivable circumstance under which drones might properly be used domestically, Holder reversed course and conceded the point in another letter just three days later (pdf).
And although opinions differ on the merits of all these issues, no matter where you stand, it's hard not to conclude that Holder has consistently made a hash out of the politics.
Which means that he's not fully doing his job, because while bureaucrats at every level carry out policy, it's the top man's job to set the tone for how policies are carried out. And that includes being an effective spokesman on behalf of the Justice Department and the president; he's not just some highly placed minister deciding whose email to intercept.
It's the difference between being the proverbial sheriff and the proverbial deputy.
And recently, in the Fox News brouhaha, the Daily Beast's Daniel Klaidman reports that the attorney general may have begun to feel "a creeping sense of personal remorse" for what appears to be overzealous pursuit of a journalist's emails, calls and whereabouts.
But then why go that route to begin with?
If he has concluded that the ability of his Justice Department to stay on top of security leaks takes precedence over press freedom, then he should stick by, and explain, that position.
If, however, in the Fox case, Holder now thinks he walked too close to the line of criminalizing investigative journalism, then he needs to seriously rethink his approach.
Because every administration misstep has "helped its critics" slow down Obama's agenda. And no matter how much trust the president has in his attorney general, the more Holder is seen as a drag on that agenda, he'll increasingly be a liability in the president's cabinet.
He's not going anywhere anytime soon, but it's a disturbing theme in the administration, because with perpetually grimacing Press Secretary Jay Carney and a mostly camera-unready Cabinet, the president is nearly always better off just speaking for himself.
It's tricky with Holder, though, because he has been the subject of controversies — some real and some bogus — almost since day 1. Which doesn't mean there haven't been moments when he's been willing to stand up for himself, the president and the administration of justice in the face of political crosswinds.
For example, his candid rebuke — impolitic as it may have been — of members of Congress when they used the power of the purse to thwart Holder's plans to put Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on trial in civilian court, as opposed to a military tribunal, despite the fact that civilian courts "have convicted hundreds of terrorists since Sept. 11, and our prisons safely and securely hold hundreds today, many of them serving long sentences."
The Justice Department lost that round to Congress, but that's really not one you can pin on Holder.
More than four years into his rocky tenure as our top law-enforcement officer, what's hard to figure out about Holder is this: Why does he even want to be attorney general?
On one level, it makes sense that after a career that has included stints as a Superior Court judge — appointed by Ronald Reagan; D.C.'s first black U.S. attorney; and deputy attorney general in Bill Clinton's administration, he'd naturally want to become America's top cop. But on another level, Holder confounds. He's a smart guy who could easily have made 10 times the money with one-tenth the headaches in the private sector. Yet he signed on for a second term, despite being either unwilling, or unable, to navigate the politics involved.
Predictably, on Sunday's talk shows, Democrats said there's nothing "that would prevent him from continuing to do his job," while Republicans asked if Holder is "really able to effectively serve" with clouds hovering overhead.
For now, though, Holder is either determined to outlast his critics, or he just thinks he's the best man for the job. Which makes sense, if you buy Reason editor Nick Gillespie's theory that his unwritten role is playing the bad cop so that Obama can be the good guy.
If that's the case, then he's doing a heckuva job.
David Swerdlick is a contributing editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.